Black Student Union video sparks dialogue at CRLS, but controversy over accusations
The revived Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school released “Cambridge’s Minority Reports: Volume 1” last week, a video follow-up to its “Cambridge Stands Up for the Anthem.” Shot in striking black and white, it shows mostly students of color emerging from the darkness to sit and tell their story of racial incidents experienced at school – comments made by a teacher or fellow student. No names are used.
Introduced by student Leilani Pucci singing Jay-Z’s “4:44,” students recount 16 instances of micro- to macro-aggressions, 10 clearly by teachers. Some students are visibly upset. One tells about a presentation during Black History Month that led to a class debate about whether there should be White History Month. “One of the students said, ‘Well, Black history would be more important if there was actual history.’”
Another recounts a black student walking into an honors classroom on the first day of the semester and asking if he was in the right room. The teacher looked at his schedule and said he wasn’t. “You don’t look like you belong here anyway,” the teacher said, according to the video.
The video was released Dec. 5 on social media and shown in many high school homerooms. Several students who saw it in school that week interpreted the airing as part of a school-wide effort to share the video, since homerooms are often used for such conversations.
While “Anthem,” with no dialogue, only song, was described by teacher and Black Student Union adviser Kevin Dua in October as “not an attack on any party, any person, any group” and embraced warmly by administration and staff, the second video has had a different reaction.
On Dec. 7, Principal Damon Smith sent an email to school families saying he and the administration “have been made aware, and viewed the video” and that there would be a “school-wide community conversation” during special class sessions a week later. “First and foremost,” the email continued, “as evident in the video, the impact of micro-aggressions and the lack of cultural competency in our professional community is a necessary conversation we must continue to have as a school.”
Smith sent a slightly different email to school staff, adding:
As important as this ongoing dialogue is; [sic] the administration did not approve how the video was distributed, nor did the administration agree with elements of the video that implicated specific staff members. For this reason, as we continue towards making CRLS a more culturally competent community, we will not use this particular video as a vehicle during the Community Conversation next week.
I will be meeting with the BSU this afternoon to determine next steps in using this powerful resource to address culturally responsive and competent practices in our school community.
The BSU was resurrected this year at the high school after history teacher Dua moved from Somerville Public Schools. Named Massachusetts 2017 History Teacher of the Year last spring, Dua has said that he was drawn to Cambridge in part because he was moved by students’ activism and their yearning to see changes in the school and community, as portrayed in Cambridge Day’s report on the need of more teachers of color. Dua has said he could see a role for himself at the high school, especially in the education of students of color.
Many students who viewed the video in homerooms last week were surprised to hear Smith say administration did not “approve how the video was distributed.” Many had already seen the video before their community meetings via social media.
A decidedly unscientific survey of CRLS students suggests that many of these stories are not secrets – for teachers and students who made their comments in front of a classroom, word gets around, and students have often heard about incidents even if they were not present at the time.
The BSU walks a gray area of responsibility – are members speaking on behalf of the school, or purely for themselves? Like the school’s newspaper, The Register Forum, it is a student-run club with a faculty adviser. Do projects created by these groups need to be “cleared” by administration? Steve Matteo, faculty adviser to The Register Forum, did not reply to an inquiry about how he walks the line in deciding whether an article or opinion piece is “appropriate” – or whether he leaves that to the students. (The request was sent after staff was asked not to respond to public inquiries.) What responsibility the group had to get approval for the video, if any, is a hot topic on campus.
Staff, administration react
Three adults associated with the high school, none of whom wanted to go on record, have said some staff are upset their alleged comments were referred to – albeit anonymously – in the video and are exploring “options” for redress with the educators’ union. For some of staff, the recountings were interpreted as an “attack” on who made the comment.
A key issue is reportedly that two students each named the department of the teacher they talked about. Even though no names were mentioned, the gender and subject area of the staff member narrows the field of possible teachers dramatically, especially for insiders at the school.
Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Educators Union, and Smith have not responded to requests for comment. Staff have been asked not to talk “publicly” about the video, several have reported, and there is clearly an effort to keep discussions internal, in part because of worries about creating more division or opening up the school to criticism.
Superintendent Kenneth Salim sent this response:
Last week, CRLS students in the Black Student Union released a student-produced video that describes troubling and upsetting experiences related to students’ racial and cultural identities at the high school. While cultural proficiency work has been a professional development focus for our high school and the district, these student testimonies show that we need to dig deeper and do more to ensure that we have a learning environment that is inclusive and culturally responsive for every student every day. The high school leadership team has had the opportunity to meet with students who produced the video and are planning a school-wide community meeting “X-block” that is focused on the impact of microaggressions. We will continue to work with students, staff and administrators on this important and very difficult work.
In addition, building leaders have met with staff members individually and have created additional opportunities this week to speak with any faculty who have questions or concerns.
The need for improved cultural competency professional development Salim refers to has been a stated focus of the district for years, and was highlighted in the discussion of some of the prominent teachers of color who left the school last spring. The only challenger to get a School Committee seat in the coming term, Laurance Kimbrough, ran on a platform of “creating equity within our city and dismantling the legacy of white supremacy and white privilege within Cambridge” that he said he’d seen from the inside.
This Tuesday, some classes were already discussing the video, and at least one included a discussion on whether it was “appropriate” or “fair” to discuss teachers without allowing them a chance to tell “their version of the story,” or whether the video should have kept out references to staff’s teaching subjects.
CRLS scheduled an extended school-wide homeroom period Thursday at which every classroom was to discuss the video.
What some teachers say
“I think everything the kids said is extremely sad,” said one CRLS staff member who did not want to be identified. “I also think it was very inappropriate to [identify the teachers’ department], because now the video has implicated teachers who may have done nothing wrong. The teacher making the video should have known better, and should be teaching the kids to advocate in better ways. The whole thing is unfortunate, and the video is being shared all over the place, damaging reputations of even innocent, hardworking and caring teachers.”
This person is not alone in this at least initial opinion, but there is no way of telling how many share it. Some teachers, including those outside of the high school, have cautioned that some students in the video may have misinterpreted what they heard.
Others had a very different reaction.
“I can’t say what’s an absolute fact or not, but what I can say is that I felt the pain of this group of students so much so that I cried,” wrote a teacher of color at one of Cambridge’s middle schools, who asked not to be named. “I’m proud that our students know they have a voice and have chosen to exercise that voice. This is what we’ve taught them since they entered our district. Maybe this video will spark dialogue leading to change. This is what they are demanding.”
Lynn Brown, who taught seventh- and eighth-grade in Cambridge schools for years until moving recently to a Boston-based program, said:
As a veteran teacher, and a public employee who serves as the employee of the people, I always knew that what I said in my classroom was public knowledge and I was accountable for it. Might there be some fear and defensiveness on the part of teachers? Certainly. And, as white educators, we need to learn to process that and listen to the experiences of students who live in a culture in which their voices are constantly devalued. There is simply no parity of experience here. White educators can feel the discomfort, work it through and listen. And then, hopefully, act on what we learn. If an educator hears something they said in this video and feels it was taken out of context, they might reflect on how it sounded and felt to their students, and why that might be the case. THAT is useful learning.
For many incidents in the video, students said they tried to get a response to their concerns and felt thwarted. One student becomes so upset about a lack of response that she walks out of the video. This combination of feeling harassed and unheard recalls CRLS’ Feminist Club walkout a year and a half ago that led to a substantial revision of the school’s policy for responding to student and staff claims of harassment.
A student’s story
One of the students in the video wanted to share her story, which took place when she was a sophomore. “I was having a really off day. Something had just happened that morning and I was not in the right state of mind to just be talking to anybody,” Naia Aubourg said of that day two years ago.
A student came up behind her, pulled her hood up over her head and pushed her head onto the desk, she said. She screamed, “Stop!” The teacher came over and told her to stop screaming. Aubourg says she tried to explain what happened and why her reaction was so intense, but, she said, the teacher ordered her out of the room. Aubourg admits it was not her best moment, and things escalated quickly, but from her point of view, she wanted to explain her side of the story and nobody seemed willing to listen.
At some point, she said, she was pushed out the room; there definitely was some physical shoving, probably in both directions. Aubourg tried to get back into the classroom, arguing she shouldn’t have to leave, and the body contact heightened. At the time, she said, the (white) boy who had, in her mind, started it was completely uninvolved, which seemed unfair. “[The teacher] was not trying to hear my story at all.”
The hallway commotion attracted other adults. Aubourg heard clearly the teacher say “animal,” though she thinks other people in the scuffle were so focused on her that they didn’t.
The teacher wanted to press charges. Aubourg was suspended. She was put in an office, she said, her parents were called in, and still “nobody wanted to hear my side of the story.” The role of the boy pulling her hood and pushing her head was invisible. “The reason I didn’t fight the suspension is that I felt like nobody was hearing me in the first place. If I had advocated for myself, no one would listen to me anymore than they are now,” she thought.
“Now I feel like I have to be a lot more cautious of things that I do with teachers [and] with students because I don’t want that same reaction,” she said. “My mom [told] me that night, ‘You have three strikes in this life: You’re black, and you’re female, and then you have the last strike. And you can’t mess up. You have to be very careful about how you walk around people, how you talk around people, how you act.’ It’s exhausting.”
“We’ve all been through a lot here as teachers,” said the teacher who worried that the video was inappropriate. “The marathon bombing, the graffiti. It’s like we’re always in the news for negative things.” (The 2013 Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, attended CRLS.)
Of course, Cambridge is not the only community affected by these events, or alone in confronting racism. In the past two months, there have been notable publicized incidents in Rockland, Mansfield, Reading, Needham, Wrentham, Boston and Brookline, to name a few.
But the thrust of the “Minority Reports” video is unapologetically the comments’ impact on students. It was a conscious decision, Aubourg said, to focus on teachers because of what the students recognized as the huge impact of having an overwhelmingly white teaching staff with imperfect “cultural competency,” for lack of a better term.
Aubourg said the roots of the video was a discussion of the dearth of teachers of color at the school. Dua, she said, is the only teacher “who can really understand me.” This burden on the students is not unlike those reported by teachers of color last year, who felt underappreciated or even undermined by a lack of support.
The BSU students are aware that some teachers felt attacked.
“But that’s not the point,” Aubourg said. “This is what this is. A lot of the comments [staff made in the video] were very public.” Her response to the teachers is, “We didn’t have a choice, so you don’t get one either.”